Lessons from the 2019 Federal Election

With the Coalition back in government, what’s next for the working class?

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On 18 May, the Liberal and National Coalition was returned to government. The Australian Labor Party (ALP), which went into the election narrowly favoured to win, lost what was seen to be an unlosable election.

With union leaders and non-government organisations once again pouring resources — both money and working class energy — into marginal seat campaigning and charting a strategy to elect a Labor government, the result feels calamitous to people so desperate for relief from the worst excesses of the Abbot/Turnbull/Morrison Coalition government. The incumbents had nothing to offer except more racist scapegoating, attacks on unions, inaction on climate change, erosion of democratic rights and harsh austerity measures. The centrepiece of the 2019 budget was tax cuts for the rich and a budget surplus delivered through savage cuts to welfare and services.

Three more years of conservative rule is not good news for workers and the poor. It’s a tragedy for low-paid workers, especially casuals and those working in the gig economy. It’s a blow to those who had lost penalty rates and pinned hopes on having them restored. It’s a travesty for Aboriginal people in remote communities longing for the racist and punitive Community Development Program to be scrapped. It is heartbreaking for early childhood educators, who have been fighting for pay commensurate with their qualifications.

For students still studying, the cost of a diploma or degree is set to rise as $2.3 billion are ripped from university budgets. Labor’s pledge to subsidise access to pre-school for all 3-year-olds has been shredded, and working mothers returning to work will barely be able to cover the cost of the childcare. For those eking out an existence on the pitifully low Newstart Allowance, Labor’s promise of a review gave a glimmer of hope.

There’s no reprieve for rural communities now living along dying river systems. Refugees incarcerated indefinitely in Nauru and Manus Island and yearning for resettlement have had their optimism cruelly dashed. And the future looks bleak for more than 7,000 people on temporary protection visas, who live in destitution with no income support. The poorest among the 3 million seniors, who were told they’d be eligible for a thousand dollars of dental care every two years, face the pain of gum disease and tooth decay. For those living with cancer, a future free from out-of-pocket expenses has evaporated. People with disabilities will feel despair at the ballooning wait times for their National Disability Insurance Scheme packages. There’s no respite for public sector workers or the community who face ridiculous wait times for government services. The privatisation, arbitrary staffing caps, attacks on working conditions and declining pay looks set to worsen.

With “A fair go for Australia” as its slogan, the ALP took a very mild reform agenda to the electorate. “Building our economy, securing our future” was the Coalition’s mantra, and its prime message to voters was to not risk change.

Twin parties of capitalism. Day and night, through TV news coverage and social media newsfeeds, voters were presented an appearance of widely divergent offerings. The ALP’s and Coalition’s promises did differ. But behind the charade of a fierce contest, the “choice” was a capitalist politician — the one in the red tie or the one in the blue.

The highest priority of both parties is to be a good administrator of Australian capitalism and deliver for the ruling class. Both believe in adjusting, not fundamentally changing, and accomplishing this through market mechanisms, not overall planning based on people’s needs. Not up for debate are slavish support for the U.S. alliance and pursuing Australia’s imperialist interests in the Pacific. Both parties committed to increasing defence spending to 2% of the gross domestic product.  There’s not a shred of difference in their support for the suite of national security measures introduced under the banner of “the war on terror.” Both Labor and the Coalition have funnelled masses of taxpayer dollars to private healthcare and education. Both trample the sovereign rights of First Nations and are united in their cruel mistreatment of asylum seekers detained indefinitely in Nauru and Manus Island.

Plenty of reasons to be cynical. Offering the same core program, both parties experienced a voter backlash, losing votes to independents and minor parties. Clearly, there was no enthusiasm for either major party. Instead, the general mood was anti-politician, and voters sent a message that they’d had enough of spin-doctors, broken promises, declining standard of living and reduced services.

Without a mass party posing an alternative anti-capitalist perspective, the huge protest vote spread in fragments across the spectrum.

In three seats of Melbourne’s multicultural working class north, the Victorian Socialists attracted almost 5% of the vote. The Greens, highlighting the climate emergency and still seen by many as a protest vote against the ALP, polled 10% nationally.

An extensive list of rightwing outfits competed for attention on the ballot, especially in the Senate. The far-right One Nation Party attracted 3% of the national vote.

The other winner of the protest vote was big-spending mining magnate Clive Palmer, who outlaid almost $60 million on advertising and ran candidates in every seat in the country. Using the slogan “Make Australia great again,” Palmer outspent all other parties combined. He kicked off his advertising spree months before the election with a general anti-politician protest message. After the election, Palmer boasted to The Guardian that he had “decided to polarise the electorate” with an anti-Labor advertising blitz in the final weeks. Having done a preference deal with the Morrison government, he focused his spending power against Labor leader, Bill Shorten.  Palmer’s company, Waratah Coal, which is seeking government approval for a coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, paid people to hand out how-to-vote cards. His United Australia Party scored 3.5% of the vote — 90% of these preferences flowing to the Coalition, which got it across the line. While not winning a seat, Palmer was delighted with the return on his investment!

Time to learn from history. As the outcome unfolded on election night, social media exploded with disappointed voters vowing to “move to New Zealand” or calling for Queensland to be excised from the rest of Australia. This wrong-headed response pits different groups of working class voters against each other.

Voters aren’t stupid. Offered few choices, but still believing in parliamentarism, they don’t feel empowered.  

Like most elections, there was not a huge shift in votes. It only takes a small shift in sentiment among a few swinging voters to change the government, and the entire system is predicated on appealing to this layer. A few figures should be enough to show that the voting system is not particularly democratic: The Greens attracted 10% of the vote and got less than 1% of the seats. The National Party and Liberal National Party combined scored 13% of the vote and won 23% of the seats.

A useful reform to the electoral system would be proportional representation, which would better reflect the sentiment of voters.

Far from drawing the necessary lessons, ALP technocrats and media commentators are pushing all the wrong conclusions — the Labor leader’s personality was “wooden,” or the ALP needs to orient more to the centre. They fail to understand why working class people have abandoned the ALP or else vote for it resignedly.

Voters have not forgotten Labor’s performance in government from 2007 to 2013. The ALP is best remembered for protecting the capitalist economy during the Global Financial Crisis, slashing payments to sole parents, failing to legislate marriage equality, caving in to mining bosses’ threats over its mining tax plan, continuing the paternalistic Northern Territory Intervention that controls the lives of Aboriginal people and introducing mandatory off-shore detention for asylum seekers.

Two days before the election, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke died. Far from creating a wave of sympathy for the ALP, the saturation coverage of Hawke’s political legacy more likely reminded voters of these 13 years of Labor in government. Hawke ushered in the era of neoliberalism, overseeing massive privatisation. He reintroduction fees for university education. He imposed the Prices and Incomes Accord — a social contract between capital and labour promising a new deal for workers. In reality, the Accord required unionists to trade away their right to strike and rely on government to provide. This devastated the union movement, precipitating a steep decline in membership. Prime Minister Morrison’s tribute to Hawke as a great Australian for his services to capitalism could only have intensified the popular cynicism about politicians — that regardless of party affiliation, they’re all the same.  

There’s no planet B. “Analysts” claim that working people and those in regional Australia don’t care about the environment. Workers care deeply about the planet. And those in regional Australia, including farmers, are living with the grim reality of extreme weather events and bungled water management policies.

The notion that workers and the environment are “natural” foes is superficial and false. Just as humans and nature are interdependent, so are jobs and the environment.

There’s an emergency around the climate and jobs, which can only be addressed through planning. Faced with only market-driven “options,” it’s no wonder many mining communities want to hang on to the jobs they have. But making common cause with the likes of Gautam Adani, Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest will not deliver what these communities need. The environment movement must embrace an explicitly working class program. This means shedding the illusion that the market can save the planet. It means taking up the fight now to transition to renewable energy, demand no new coal and put the power industry into public hands, under the control of the workers. Workers in polluting industries need concrete proposals guaranteeing secure and well-paid jobs in clean industries of the future.

Young people, who appreciate that this is their future at stake, are providing inspiration through the global school climate strike movement — including in Australia, where less than a week after the election, parts of Melbourne were brought to a standstill. Building mass movements to take independent action, not linked to the electoral cycle, is crucial. To achieve change, the fight must first be won in schools, workplaces and the community.

Commentary around the death of Hawke also drew attention to his role in saving Tasmania’s Franklin River. The Gordon-below-Franklin Dam was stopped by a movement so huge that no politician could ignore it. Faced with rebellion on a massive scale, Hawke stepped in. Winning the hearts and minds of the working class majority across the country has always been the way to win change. The struggle for marriage equality — the product of decades of independent LGBTIQ liberation organising — confirms this lesson.  

Ground hog day. Just two days after the election, the bosses were already serving demands on the government. Innes Wilcox, head of the Australian Industry Group, provocatively demanded an intensified crackdown on unions.  

When will trade union movement leaders ever learn? In every election it’s the same — unionists mobilised to elect a Labor government instead of building industrial strength in workplaces and organising labour as an independent power. Over the last couple of years, the ACTU spent almost $25 million dollars on the Change the Rules campaign, much of this going into advertising. Just imagine the impact if this money was put into a strike fund or employing more industrial organisers to organise the unorganised!

The Change the Rules campaign was built on flawed foundations. The anti-union industrial rules the campaign sought to change were legislated by the Rudd Labor government — and there’s simply no getting around this. While the earlier Your Rights At Work campaign initially had a campaigning focus, it was derailed into an electoral campaign. It did play a role in defeating the Howard government in 2007. But once this was accomplished, the campaign was wound up. The ALP then legislated the Fair Work Act, which enforces the rules restricting unions today.   

The trade union leadership needs to draw some crucial lessons: these campaigns, organised at the expense of building workers’ industrial muscle, ultimately weaken and demoralise unionists. It need not be so!

Just days before the election, unionists from a range of industries attended an inspiring event to mark the 50th anniversary of the general strike sparked by the jailing of Tramways Union leader, Clarrie O’Shea. O’Shea was locked up indefinitely for contempt, refusing to pay fines in defiance of the repressive penal powers restricting unions’ ability to organise. The commemorative event, co-hosted by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, was rich with lessons for today. O’Shea was a communist and, along with other leftwing union leaders and rank-and-file activists, knew that the way to defeat the penal powers was to defy them. Of course, a general strike cannot not be conjured up from nowhere. A massive campaign over several years politically educated unionists about the role of the state and the function of the penal powers in the battle between capital and labour. The strike — which happened under a Coalition government — led to O’Shea’s release from prison. The penal powers were never used again.

Once freed, O’Shea said, “My release is a great victory for working people and all other democrats who have stood up against the shackling of the workers’ struggle. My imprisonment and release were only a small part of the much bigger question of oppression of the workers.”

The task ahead is to rebuild workers’ industrial power independently of the Labor Party. The win for the Chemist Warehouse strikers is a taste of what’s possible. And the announcement by the Transport Workers Union, a week after the election, that it plans to unleash “industrial chaos” through coordinated strikes across 200 enterprises in pursuit of a bigger share of profits from retailers and airlines in Enterprise Bargaining Agreements is welcome news.

Parliamentary democracy plays a specific role within the capitalist system — misleading workers to believe they have a say. It’s long past time that working people recognise that — while we participate in the process of elections — we must do so in our own class interest.

Issued by the Freedom Socialist Party, 27 May 2019

We invite you to work with the Freedom Socialist Party in the unions and other mass movements. You are also warmly invited to study Marxist ideas with us and discuss how they apply to the struggle today. To gain an understanding of the role played by bourgeois democracy and parliamentary elections, we recommend reading Democracy and Revolution: From Ancient Greece to Modern Capitalism by George Novack. Copies are available from the Solidarity Salon bookshop or contact us at freedom.socialist.party@ozemail.com.au

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